"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Monday, September 12, 2011

Birthday Today - H.L. Mencken

My old man was more of a Mencken man than I am.   Mencken to me was a little too enamored of his own prose style, which led him into taking some positions on race and religion that, in retrospect, were somewhat ugly.   But he wrote beautifully, and saw American society with an incisive clarity that cut through much of the cant of his day (much like a Mark Steyn cuts through the cant of ours).   He was a thoroughgoing skeptic, and skepticism is always useful, particularly in a world like ours increasingly made up, as our President exemplifies, of "just words."

One thing that Steyn would have admired is that Mencken, born in 1880, graduated high school at 16, worked in his immigrant father's cigar factory until he was 19, when he got a job as a cub reporter, beginning his career in journalism.   In other words, no college, no graduate school in journalism, no credentials, no elite university stamp-of-approval... just a man who made his way up from the bottom.   Can you even become an intellectual leader in America anymore without elite degrees?   Maybe not (Steyn himself is close to being one for conservatives, and he doesn't have a college degree either, but try doing that without a British accent!).  

Here are some selected Mencken quotes, which make for good reading, as his greatest talent was probably as an aphorist:
A poet more than thirty years old is simply an overgrown child.
Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.
Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.
Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.
I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.
In the United States, doing good has come to be, like patriotism, a favorite device of persons with something to sell.
It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.
Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
The capacity of human beings to bore one another seems to be vastly greater than that of any other animal.
The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.
The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office.
The men the American public admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.
The penalty for laughing in a courtroom is six months in jail; if it were not for this penalty, the jury would never hear the evidence.
The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
The world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of truth--that the error and truth are simply opposite. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it is cured of one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one.
Unquestionably, there is progress. The average American now pays out twice as much in taxes as he formerly got in wages.
We are here and it is now. Further than that all human knowledge is moonshine.
There is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong.

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